Traditional fairy tale narratives are not made for today’s TV. Among a steady increase of smart, narratively complex shows that utilize attributes of the televisual medium, such as seriality and reflexivity, to their fullest, the conventional fairy tale falls flat. Their structures are too linear, too episodic, their worlds too limited, and their characters too static. At the very least, fairy tales’ self-contained stories and one dimensional protagonists would have to be altered to work for TV. But savvy contemporary TV audiences that embrace, and to a certain extent, expect complicated narratives would yawn at a simple retrofitting of the tales. More significant changes on a narrative and structural level are required to entertain today’s sophisticated viewers.
Fortunately, fairy tales have an inherent quality that makes them particularly amenable to adaptation. Spun from a long tradition of oral storytelling, fairy tale narratives are naturally fluid, easily allowing the stories to morph and evolve into whatever the storyteller desires so long as key narrative hallmarks remain recognizable. In part, it’s this fluidity that has allowed TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time to mold the classic stories into a format fit for contemporary TV and TV audiences.
Once Upon A Time, in particular, has taken bold and interesting license with the conventional stories and structure of fairy tales. Emboldened by the fact that their parent company is Disney, ABC’s freshman hit has merged all of the fairy tales into one storyworld, opening up the new possibility of weaving them together to create new stories. The result is an intertextuality that transforms Once Upon A Time into a so-called “Easter egg hunt” with the viewer constantly searching for allusions to traditional fairy tales, Disney renditions, and occasionally other shows, such as Lost. Structurally, Once Upon A Time’s story exists in duel universes that operate on parallel narratives, each informing the events in the other. This can be seen in the accompanying clip, where Rumpelstiltskin’s words in the fairy tale world foreshadow the events in Storybrooke.
While Once Upon A Time has recently veered into incorporating non-fairy tale content (King Midas and The Mad Hatter), the show’s foundation lies in cleverly transforming the structurally simplistic stories we know and love into a complex narrative able to enchant the sophisticated viewer.